The average retirement age for turboprop aircraft is creeping up and the pace of retirements is decelerating—in contrast with the general pattern for commercial jets—with high fuel prices heightening the appeal of the propeller-driven flyers and manufacturers creating programs to extend their lives.
The continuation of the trend could depend on what happens to all of the used regional jets that will be entering the market over the next few years. Regulatory authorities also could change the dynamic by placing new, costly requirements on the aircraft. But for the moment, the shift has been significant: An analysis using Aviation Week Intelligence Network's (AWIN) fleet database shows that commercial airlines retired 493 turboprops from 2004-06 and 441 from 2007-09, but only 279 from 2010-12.
The database also indicates an average age of 32 for all 94 of the turboprops classified as retired in 2012. That follows by three years when the average age ranged from 29-30. The average age last approached 32 in 2008, and has not dropped below 28 since 2004.
What has happened? Fuel is a major factor; turboprops are more fuel efficient than the small jets that would be the alternative in some markets. Also, a wave of retirements from aircraft built in the 1970s and early 1980s has passed.
But there are additional circumstances as well. For example, demand for turboprops has picked up and so has their value, so airlines might be more willing to refurbish and hold onto them, says Michael Magnusson, the president of Saab Aircraft Leasing. Also, there is no widespread, suitable replacement for the smaller turboprops because no one is making them; the new ATRs are too expensive for many operators.
What could become a replacement for some operators are the smaller used regional jets (RJs) that will be flooding the market during the next few years. But Magnusson checked into that scenario last November and did not find much evidence to support it.
In perusing the more than a dozen long-time turboprop operators taking used RJs over the past four or five years, he found that each one only took a handful for specialized purposes—about 60 in total. Many of them did so because they could obtain the aircraft cheaply and use them for a couple of long-distance markets.